Last week, on a gloriously sunny New Year's Day, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca kept up a Tournament of Roses Parade tradition by mounting a horse and riding the route with other local law enforcement officials.
Who knew that less than a week later Baca would be riding off into the sunset?
Baca had given every indication he would seek re-election. He'd hired a prominent campaign consultant. A fundraiser with a $1,500 ticket was scheduled for the evening of Dec. 9th at an upscale downtown restaurant.
But that very morning, the U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles announced indictments against 18 current and former Sheriff's Department employees. Among the charges was an allegation that five deputies and two lieutenants conspired to obstruct justice by hiding from federal officials an FBI informant who was being held in the county jail.
Baca was not named in the indictments and the fundraiser went on as scheduled, but, just a month later, the sheriff announced Monday he would not seek re-election and would retire at the end of January — 10 months before the end of his fourth term.
"The reasons for doing so are so many," said Baca at his press conference (audio) as about 20 sheriff's officials stood behind him outside department headquarters in Monterey Park. "Some are most personal and private, but the prevailing one is the negative perception this upcoming campaign has brought to the exemplary service provided to the men and women of the Sheriff's Department."
Baca did not answer why he wouldn’t serve out his term through the end of November, but it was clear he did not have the stomach for what would surely be a bitter campaign.
"I know the intensity of politics as good as anyone,” said Baca, who has been lauded for being a progressive sheriff. “But I’d rather hold on to [my] values than to compromise them for the sake of an election.”
Baca's main opponent would have been his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, who retired from the department last year, though it is widely believed that Baca nudged him out. Both Baca and Tanaka were sharply criticized by a 2012 blue ribbon commission on jail violence.
Also running is former department official Robert Olmsted, who was critical of Baca in his testimony before the commission.
Baca, who ran unopposed in 2010, clearly was not relishing a campaign in which he would be challenged at every turn. "I'm not afraid of reality," said Baca, who turns 72 in May. "I'm only afraid of people who don't tell the truth."
During his press conference, Baca named two current assistant sheriffs who he said were "highly qualified" to run for the position. One of them, Todd Rogers, quickly announced he will seek the position (audio).
"There has been a catastrophic failure of leadership in the Sheriff’s Department," Rogers said. "A lot of these leaders are now gone. We have some that are still remaining and we need to fix that.”
And Rogers bluntly signaled he would target Tanaka: "He was one of those leaders who failed the sheriff."
Hellmold, a longtime department veteran who was once Baca's driver, said he has "not made a decision" about running. But he said it's a possibility.
“It would come into consideration," Hellmold said. "But to me family is first, and I’ve seen a lot of the negative scrutiny that has come with the campaign, so I can’t make my focus politics."
Tanaka — who served the department for 33 years — took the high road on Monday, issuing a statement that read, in part: “Sheriff Baca and I have had our differences regarding the leadership and management of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He's voiced his opinions publicly as have I. I’ll talk about that during my campaign, but I want to put politics aside for today and applaud him for his dedication to public service."
Last March, Tanaka was elected to a third term as Mayor of Gardena.
Other announced candidates include Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Patrick Gomez and LAPD Sergeant Lou Vince.
Another local law enforcement official, LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara, said Monday he is considering a run. In 2008 he became the first Asian-American to be appointed an LAPD deputy chief. Last year, Hara made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the L.A. City Council.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell is also being discussed as a possible candidate. Last year the former LAPD deputy chief said he was not interested in running for sheriff. But lately, he was said to be reconsidering. McDonnell could not be reached on Monday.
And the wild card could be Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who Baca hired last year to oversee the jails. On Monday, Baca recommended that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors appoint her to complete his term.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he expects the board will appoint someone who will not appear on the primary ballot in June (audio). But he praised McDonald and said he hoped she would consider a run. McDonald was not available for comment Monday.
But whoever ends up on the ballot will have to contend with this cloud: the U.S. Attorney's investigation into the department is continuing.